Alcatraz, Sharks, Puppies, and Me

A Great White Shark attacks a seal right in front of horrified tourists — you may have seen this video making its rounds on the internet. Now, there’s an “uncut” version of it going viral. Warning: it’s much more intense than the first. This new video was captured by the Alcatraz Cruises ferry, Hornblower Hybrid. It shows the attack from the very beginning — including a spectacular breach. It’s being called the first shark “predation” event captured on video in recent history in San Francisco Bay.

I find this story fascinating because in 2012 I swam in this very area — from Alcatraz to Crissy Field with a group of swimmers from Water World Swim. It was one of those bucket list items always lurking in the back of my mind. After months of training the timing finally seemed right. So, I signed up, packed my wetsuit, and set off to San Francisco. As the sun came up that fateful morning I sipped my coffee on a dock near Fisherman’s Wharf  and discussed strategy with the other swimmers. Before our departure Coach Pedro (he holds the world record for Alcatraz swim crossings with more than 900) gave us tips to deal with the strong currents around the island. Most had done the swim several times already and were Alcatraz vets. I was a virgin and the vets love to mess with virgins. They said not to worry about sharks because they don’t really go into the San Francisco Bay.

Mhmm.

They said I should be more concerned about the icy cold water and hypothermia than fins and teeth.

Mhmm.

I listened and processed it although I knew one of the largest congregation points for Great White Sharks, the Farallon Islands, lay just off the coast and mere miles from this location.

But I also knew this was part of the thrill of swimming Alcatraz and to be honest I was more concerned with the currents. According to USA Triathlon the Bay fills up with water and empties every 12 to 13 hours. The water level can rise or fall up to 8 feet in a matter of 6 short hours which means 4.5 million gallons of water per second flows in and out of the narrow one mile wide Golden Gate. The currents can exceed 7 miles per hour. Seasoned swimmers say you never get the same Alcatraz swim twice. Here’s what the current looked like just before I arrived at the drop point:

As the boat pulled up next to Alcatraz I zipped up my wetsuit, made sure my neoprene cap was on tight and that I had put enough defogger into my swim goggles. I then waited for the horn…the signal to abandon ship. We laughed and wished each other a safe and good swim. We took our last looks at the swirling currents from the safety of the boat. As soon as the horn blew the mass exodus began. I watched the first swimmers jump into the water and come up screaming. Not a good sign! Some entries were graceful and sleek while others were epic fails.

Fellow swimmers on the way out to Alcatraz.

The moment I jumped off the boat into the freezing water of San Francisco Bay I tried to put the thought of what lay beneath out of my head. It actually did go out of my head the moment I hit the water because I immediately had the most intense brain freeze ever experienced by a human being in the history of the world. Head throbbing, I popped up from under the water as other swimmers jumped in around me and on top of me and I started my epic journey. There were a total of 20 swimmers…all different levels…each with a different pace…so the distance between us increased over the course of the swim until you really couldn’t see anyone around you within a few minutes. The increasing wind created waves which didn’t help with sighting the important landmarks you needed to stay on track. I was breathing on my right side every other stroke with the current pushing me swiftly towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I swam water polo style (head above water) every couple of minutes just to make sure I was getting closer to land and not just riding the current into the Pacific Ocean.

The current pushes you swiftly towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

The current pushes you swiftly towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Swimming in the ocean is amazing! It’s the ultimate commune with nature. But I will say, anyone who tells you they don’t think about sharks is a liar. So I’m not going to lie — over the course of the hour swim, I imagined myself in a variety of predator/prey type situations. I imagined a shark coming up from the depths swimming slowly and purposefully towards me looking for a surprise attack. I imagined seeing a fin while I was taking a breath and then getting hit moments later. I imagined stopping to catch my breath and then being circled slowly…ever so slowly. I imagined…well, let’s just say I imagined being attacked in just about every possible way a shark can attack its prey. And since I’m being honest I will say I even imagined impossible ways a shark would attack me…so if you happen to be a Sharknado producer and need a new idea give me a call. I realized the chances of being attacked are ridiculously low but I just couldn’t get it out of my head. When I finally reached Crissy Field (I missed it by about 300 yards so I had to run back up to the official finish) I high fived the other swimmers who were on shore and tried to warm myself up by shaking uncontrollably. We were all so jacked up on adrenaline knowing we had accomplished something special. We battled the currents. We battled the cold water. We battled physical exhaustion. We even battled our fear of being eaten alive by a shark. We did Alcatraz!

Me (on the left) and a fellow Alcatraz swimmer post swim and headed back to the dock.

Me (on the left) and a fellow Alcatraz swimmer post swim and headed back to the dock.

So would I do it again after seeing the above shark video? The answer is yes but I would do things a little bit differently knowing there actually ARE sharks in the Bay.

1)  I will be in much better shape and swim a lot faster.

2) I will surround myself with several swimmers whose strokes are not as elegant as mine so they will be considered much easier targets.

3) I will take a self hypnosis class which will give me the ability to displace thoughts of sharks with thoughts of cute puppies.

Alcatraz here I come!

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